At last, horse racing captured from rail, 'RAILBIRDS'

Feb 5, 2013 3:00 AM

Your humble correspondents are proud authors of our new book, “RAILBIRDS.” It’s cheap, but good. Buy a couple of hundred. Please.

A series of short stories, “RAILBIRDS” introduces characters and their wild antics around the racing/gaming world – along with improbable, often surprising and whacky promotions at race tracks.

Railbirds, for the uninitiated, are the habitual daily degenerate, but lovable gamblers who hang out near the track’s finish line rail to watch their favorite horses, jockeys, greyhounds or jai alai players (in some cases) win. Some are bunched right at trackside, some are watching from four stories up in the VIP suites. Many are in the bars, TV rooms, nooks and crannies in between, but they are all together the lifeline of the racing business.

The group as a whole is bizarre. Individually, as described in the book, they have colorful stories and peculiarities, which make each one real and fascinating. There’s arithmetic wizard, track bias guru, and betting savvy Binocular Bob; the Sheik, complete with his security guards, food tasters, mysterious entourage and wads of money.

Meadowlark is the would-be pro-golfer who mastered the new technology of bet/cash wagering and used it to his own advantage. A worldwide cavalcade of beauties contending for Miss Universe made unannounced visits to the track.

Professional wrestlers always managed to finish their bouts just before the next race started; El Senor, the wealthy, legally blind, Cuban ex-patriot whose daily regimen and constant confusion at the track was the source of internal hi-jinks. Pete the Roofer with his constant fist full of cash, odd betting habits and inexplicable shady background; Park Avenue Willy, the dandy of the clubhouse, with an income largely derived from stooping…and others all with descriptive monikers like Benny the Rug, The Hip, Clovis and more.

Whether it’s the Massachusetts Speed Boys rigging bets on the country fair racing circuit, Berry Impressive – the greatest greyhound marathon racer to ever compete, the inebriated Royal Greyhound racing commissioner or the scruffy trust fund bridge jumpers…it’s a fun and entertaining read.

Bill Hutchinson, general manager and vice president of four race tracks during a half century career, knew most of these characters. As he worked his way up from teller to the front office he encountered the colorful characters and fondly recalled their many idiosyncrasies:

“The race track is the quintessential people watching venue,” he said. “No matter where you go to the horse or dog races or jai alai in cities or in the country, in the USA, Great Britain, France or Hong Kong…from small seasonal operations to the big Triple Crown venues, these railbirds are part of the daily fabric of the game. Their names change, but the essential fiber of these men and women with their hysterical issues and agendas do not.”

Baird Thompson’s marketing firm was in the forefront of promotions and events at normally staid and conservative race tracks. As the lotteries and casinos ate away the attendance and handle of pari-mutuels, his firm was tasked by management to develop initiatives to save the game.

“The nature of gamblers, their superstitions, their quirks, their schemes and scams, their garb, and their body language are remarkable,” he said. “We found they were mainly oblivious to most of our marketing efforts, but as we describe in ‘RAILBIRDS,’ occasionally we got their attention!!! Anywhere in the world the railbirds are predictably unpredictable.”

The railbirds’ names were changed for the book. Some are no longer alive. Many have disappeared, others have taken their places. Many were denizens of Florida, Texas, Massachusetts and Midwest race tracks where the authors observed them from afar. A cavalcade of scams, hits, misses, near hits, near misses, technological advances and declines, misdirection and downright scandals highlight these short stories.

The book’s introduction reminds readers that in reality we are all railbirds; not necessarily at the racetrack, but throughout our individual lives. “RAILBIRDS” is now available on and also in Kindle format.

Odds n’ Ends

Alex Rodriguez underwent surgery to repair his ailing left hip in late January after pulling his $38 million Miami Beach mansion off the market. The slugger decided he preferred to rehab in his bayfront gym, batting cage and designer pool under the tropical sun. Supposedly when he returns to the Bronx, the house will go back on sale.

In what appears to be a major turn in the never ending Nevin Shapiro/UM scandal, the NCAA announced it has uncovered a “very severe case of improper conduct” committed by former members of its own enforcement program. The NCAA now has to review itself, further postponing the announcement of punishments for the school. This major hiccup is being viewed as a probable positive development for the U.

Ron the Greek (Mott/Lezcano/$8.40, 4.20, 4.40) blew by five pretenders in the stretch, including 2-5 favorite Mucho Macho Man to take the Sunshine Millions at Gulfstream Park. The six-year-old is now slated for the Santa Anita Handicap, which he won last March.

South Florida lost great horse player and Hall of Fame baseball manager Earl Weaver. The diminutive powder keg on the Orioles diamond was one of a kind.

Also “The Wizard of College Baseball” Ron Frazier passed in January. The legendary UM baseball coach for 30 years led the Canes to several college World Series championships. His innovative style is credited with elevating college baseball’s profile and fan interest through marketing, sponsorships and promotions.

Following substantive wins over the Tar Heels, Blue Devils and Terps, the UM student section “Canes Crazies” in the Bank United Center has been jammed with loud, rabid young fans. When Coach Jim Larranaga accepted the job last year, he kept his promise of making the on campus venue a real home court advantage rivaling the ACC greats.

The Miami Heat visited the president at the White House recently to celebrate their run as NBA Champs.

Baird Thompson and William Hutchinson bring a combined 80 years of gaming marketing and administration experience to Gaming Today. Contact them at [email protected].

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